Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ottoman Princess Mihrimah Sultan

Cameria, Daughter of the Emperor Soliman,
After Cristofano dell' Altissimo, 16th century(?)
(Pera Museum)
The Ottomans have always been a source of fascination, even for citizens of the Turkish Republic, whose knowledge of its more than 600 years of history is still a work in progress. While everyone who has attended school in Turkey would have a rudimentary knowledge of the names and some standard accomplishments of the Ottoman Sultans, the imperial women and their accomplishments are either ignored or mentioned within a negative context. A whole nation, for generations, still does not seem to have been able to get over the fact that Suleyman the Magnificent, legally married Hurrem, forsaking all others, when he was the most powerful man on earth (God's shadow on earth) The concubines in the Harem would rise up to become Haseki Sultan's when they bore a son but were never granted the privilege of becoming the Sultan's wife. While the daughters of the Sultans had a special place within the palace hierarchy and extreme power over their husbands, they are still remembered only in relation to their fathers or husbands - the details of their lives all too often escaping our notice completely. There were few exceptions, one in particular I just had to mention here today...

Mihrimah Sultan, the only daughter of Suleyman the Magnificent and his beloved wife, Hurrem Sultan, was one of the most influential and powerful women in 16th century Ottoman Empire. Almost a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth the Ist of England, born in 1522, Mihrimah died on January 25, 1578, leaving behind a substantial legacy of pious foundations and architectural commissions. She is best known for her two mosque complexes in Uskudar and Edirnekapi districts of Istanbul, both the work of the great architect Sinan. Her letters to her father as well as the one she wrote to King Sigismund II of Poland upon his accession to the throne congratulating him is thought to attest to her superior education and involvement in diplomacy. [1]

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Architect Sinan, Uskudar, Istanbul, Photo @yusufkucukaga

Hurrem Sultan wanted to marry her one and only daughter Mihrimah (actually Mihr ΓΌ mah translates as Sun and Moon) to the handsome governor-general of Cairo but Sultan Suleyman who was very impressed with Rustem Pasha decided otherwise. Originally a swineherder from Croatia, Rustem's story was the typical rags to riches story of how intelligent, capable young, Christian men taken as devsirme, could rise to unprecedented heights within the Ottoman Empire. Rustem's brother, Sinan, was also an admiral in the Ottoman navy. Although Rustem was not known for his comely demeanor, Suleyman was very impressed with his superior intelligence, loyalty, piety, politeness and sobriety which he found befitted one destined to be a grand vizier. He caught the eye of the Sultan when he was just a page in the imperial palace and jumped out of a window to catch something that had fallen out of the hand of his master while all the other pages ran down the stairs to retrieve it. Mihrimah and Rustem Pasha were married at her younger brothers Cihangir and Beyazid's circumcision ceremony in 1539, when she was seventeen. [2]

Portico of Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Architect Sinan, Uskudar, Istanbul Photo @icemanigation

From that day forward the royal couple with Hurrem Sultan would form what Dr Necipoglu calls the "infamous triumvirate" and were involved in many political intrigues and plots, most significant of which was the execution of the Shehzade (Crown prince) Mustafa born from Suleyman's former concubine, Mahpeyker Sultan.  Mustafa, ruling as the crown prince in Amasya, was loved by the populace and respected by the janissaries who did not look kindly to his execution due to some unfounded rumors (whispered in Suleyman's ear by Rustem Pasha) Everyone blamed Hurrem Sultan, who was trying to make one of her sons the heir apparent, and Rustem Pasha, both of whom had to spend years working to clear their public image.

Mihrimah's close relationship with her father and influence were noted by foreign dignitaries, Venetian bailo urging the senate to send periodic gifts to Mihrimah Sultan as well as her mother. After her mother died, she became her father's chief counselor and "urged Suleyman to undertake the siege of  Malta in 1565 (for which she offered to outfit 400 ships at her own expense)  and his last campaign to Szigetvar, where he passed away in 1566." [3] Due to her support of her younger brother, Beyazit over Selim, during the war of succession in 1559, her relationship with Selim who became the next Sultan was forever strained. But Mihrimah managed to win Selim over by paying for his daughters' wedding. She had amassed an enormous fortune from the revenues of crown lands her father had bestowed upon her as well as the fortune left by her husband who was infamous for becoming one of the richest Sadrazam's in all Ottoman history, making her wealthier even than her brother the Sultan. 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Architect Sinan, Uskudar, Istanbul
The first mosque Mihrimah commissioned from Sinan was built between 1543-1548 in Uskudar, on the Asian side of Istanbul. Dr. Necipoglu states that the Mihrimah Sultan mosque complex in Uskudar announced the special status of the princess due to its two minarets which was a first. It was also the first monumental mosque complex commissioned at the capital (suburb) by a princess.  The original mosque was closer to the shoreline, and its location as a point of entry or departure from the capital and the weekly market assured a big congregation. Mihrimah was supposed to have a shore palace next to the complex. The double porticoes (see the photograph above) were an innovation Sinan introduced in this mosque for the first time. It's location above the street level affords it a special place in the Istanbul skyline.

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Architect Sinan, Edirnekapi, Istanbul
The second mosque Mihrimah commissioned in the 1560s from Sinan was in Edirnekapi, near the Land Walls at the end of Divan Yolu (processional way), another major entry into the city. The monumental mosque is supposed to be a reflection of Mihrimah's position as her father's confidant and a rich and powerful widow at this time. Since the mosque was not finished by the time of her father's death, it is thought that her brother Selim prohibited her from having two minarets like she did in her mosque in Uskudar. This was considered to be constructed during Sinan's master period. The great architect was working on rebuilding the ruined aqueducts outside of the city walls near Buyukcekmece, his explorations in aqueduct design is supposed to be reflected in the four colossal tympanum arches and walls perforated with rows of arched windows.[4] Edirnekapi mosque contains many features like the porphyry columns, that recall her father's great Friday mosque, Suleymaniye, attributes announcing her elevated position in this strict, conservative society.
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Architect Sinan, Edirnekapi, Istanbul
Mosque complexes usually contained schools, hospitals, dormitories to help the community within which they were built. In order to finance the complex and its many charities, commercial enterprises would be set up on or nearby. Besides the sixty-two shops and the grocery store around the courtyard, a double bathhouse near the mosque helped finance the upkeep of the Edirnekapi complex. Mihrimah was supposed to have paid for the channel that brought water to the fountain and the bath from outside the city herself.

Inside view of Mihrimah Sultan mosque, Edirnekapi
Dr. Necipoglu states that "the endowment deed of the mosque complex eulogizes Mihrimah's mosque as a unique masterpiece of unmatched beauty, covered by a brilliantly lit heavenly dome transparent  like a bubble and engulfed by divine light like another Mount Sinai." [5] During 1561-63 Mihrimah is thought to have been overseeing the construction of her husband Rustem Pasha's precious mosque concurrently with the mosque in Edirnekapi. This mosque that sits in the commercial heart of Istanbul and is referred to as a tile museum due to the unprecedented amount of high quality Iznik tiles used in its decoration reflects the man in whose name it was constructed. Mihrimah's thrifty/business savvy husband who was known to have a fondness for lavish textiles and is said to have dressed in silks and brocades would be forever commemorated with such a sumptuously decorated structure.

Rustem Pasha Mosque, Architect Sinan, Tahtakale, Istanbul
Although it has been suggested that Rustem Pasha may have left instructions on the decoration of the mosque, scholars think that Mihrimah Sultan was probably the one who decided to immortalize her husband's name in this manner.  Since Ottoman inheritance laws required all property to revert to the crown upon the individuals death, her treasury full of precious objects and jewels were sold off at the covered bazaar upon Mihrimah's death, one-third going to her daughter Ayse Sultan and two-thirds going to her nephew, Murat III, the current reigning Sultan. She was buried in her father's mausoleum in Suleymaniye taking her place next to her magnificent father for all eternity.

Rustem Pasha Mosque Tiles

Except for a few copies of a 16th century painting from Venice, we don't have any paintings of Mihrimah Sultan displaying her in all her glory like those of her contemporaries in the West. We don't have any of her jewelry or any of the many palaces she lived in, books she read or the objects she used but we do have two monumental mosques that flank the boundaries of 16th century Istanbul she lived in. We also have a myth surrounding her and the master architect which goes something like this...
According to legend, Sinan was in love with Mihrimah but he was fifty and already married. When they married her off to Rustem Pasha he buried his love in his bosom and continued to prove his devotion by the architectural masterpieces he built for her. And he planned the location of the two mosques so perfectly that when the sun sets over Mihrimah's mosque in Edirnekapi, the moon rises over her mosque in Uskudar simultaneously... recalling her name Sun and moon.

Portrait of Princess Mihrimah Sultan, 17th century copy of a lost Titian
(Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Museum and Village)


[1] Gulru Necipoglu, The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire,  Reaktion Books Ltd, London, p. 296-297
[2]ibid., p. 296 
[3] Ibid., p. 297
[4] Ibid., p. 305-306


  1. Amazing Mosque and Amazing stories ..

  2. thank you so much to advance my knowledge of this fascinating lady.


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